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Ethiopia convicts Swedish journalists of terrorism

Rights groups protest the conviction of Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, saying Ethiopia is using its antiterrorism laws to silence dissent.

By William DavisonCorrespondent / December 21, 2011

Pedestrians walk past the Federal High Court building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Nov. 1. Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye face up to 15 years in an Ethiopian prison after they were found guilty of supporting terrorism Wednesday.

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Two Swedish journalists face up to 15 years in an Ethiopian prison after they were found guilty of supporting terrorism today.

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The successful prosecution under an anti-terror law has sparked protest from rights groups, who say the draconian 2009 legislation is being used to mount a renewed crackdown on legitimate dissent by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's two-decade-old government.

Over 100 detained opposition politicians and 6 Ethiopian journalists are also accused of terrorism-related crimes, according to Amnesty International.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt called for the immediate release of Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye today, saying they had been on a "journalistic mission."

The pair entered the country illegally in July with the intention of reporting on the activities of a Sweden-linked oil company, they testified. To gain access to the heavily restricted region, they linked up with rebels from the banned Ogaden National Liberation Front.

Preparation for the trip involved grilling an ONLF spokesman in London as to why the group attacked foreign oil companies and had not signed a peace treaty last year, Schibbye claimed. "I threw hardballs and direct questions require direct contact," he said. The government is having none of it. They "selectively tried to promote the cause of the ONLF," spokesman Shimeles Kemal said today.

According to the law - which the government says is based on international standards by the government, but which rights groups say is compiled by cherry-picking the most repressive articles from other statute books  - supporting terrorism can include providing moral support or giving advice.

"The government chooses to interpret meeting with a terrorist organization as support of that group and therefore a terrorist act,” says Claire Beston, Amnesty's Ethiopia researcher.

Leading opposition politicians are also on trial, having been accused of links with other classified terrorist groups - mostly the Oromo Liberation Front - and an enemy state, Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Critical writers such as Ethiopia-based Eskinder Nega and exiled Abiye Teklemariam face similar prosecutions.

In a comprehensive report last week detailing all ongoing cases, Amnesty concluded that since March, 114 people had been arrested "primarily for their legitimate activities and peaceful criticism of government."

Fearing prosecution, award-winning Awramba Times editor Dawit Kebede fled the country last month, making Ethiopia the country with the largest number of exiled journalists in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The government says it possesses evidence of terror links and it faces a genuine threat. A claim corroborated by a United Nations report earlier this year that said security forces foiled an Eritrea-backed Oromo Liberation Front plot to bomb Addis Ababa during January's African Union summit.

Despite the outcry from Amnesty and others, there is no sign of punitive action by the international community, who provide around $3 billion in aid to the Horn of Africa nation annually. So far, Sweden's prime minister has promised "high-level" intervention, while major donors like the US and the UK have been observing proceedings in Addis Ababa's courtrooms. As of 2009, Ethiopia was the world's largest recipient of food aid, receiving 17 percent of the total delivered, according to the United Nations' food agency.

Ethiopia - considered a stable ally in a dangerous region - last faced international censure following a disputed 2005 election when security forces shot dead almost 200 protesters who took to the streets. "Direct budget support" to the federal government was ended, but the aid kept flowing to regional administrations also controlled by Meles' ruling party.

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